Paul van Ostaijen’s long Dadaist poem ‘Occupied City’ printed here has the same epic novelistic quality to it as David Jones’s In Parenthesis. Both were written with a degree of distance: David Jones began writing ten years after the end of the war and didn’t publish his masterpiece until the eve of the Second World War; Van Ostaijen, as David Colmer points out in his introduction, put Berlin between himself and his time in the real ‘Occupied City’ of Antwerp, and his stay in post-war Berlin affected his writing about Antwerp. Both also tackled their theme of war with formal obliqueness, Van Ostaijen in his use of playful concrete poetry techniques, Jones in his intertwining of myth, legend and poetry.
David Constantine, in his Stanza lecture ‘The First World War at Home and Abroad’, notes that this distance from the event is common to many of the German and British war poets – except, of course, those that died in the war. Trench warfare, with its eerie combination of medieval hand-to-hand fighting and modern technologies mostly required time to be shaped into literature.
Psychological trauma from war often goes untreated and affects an individual long after his or her physical wounds have healed. A nation suffers in much the same way that an individual does from trauma, but by the time Europe was ready to begin examining its First World War nightmares, it was descending into another period of conflict and horror, the net result of which is that although we no longer see men with wooden legs or men ‘coughing like hags’, as my great-grandfather did all his life, the trauma of two recent wars, compacted by neglect, affects all of us. This year, with its running arguments in the UK about a history which is uncomfortably contemporary, has proved the First World War is no more ready to be packed away into the trunk labelled ‘the past’ than the Iraq War.
We are condemned to repeat ourselves, or so the truism about forgetting history goes. Should we have forgotten, the last years will have been a good reminder. We’ve seen several sordid invasions of smaller countries by larger ones and the ramping up of nationalist propaganda across the world: the necessary preliminary to war. I’ve noted, too, that as a society moves towards war and death all its individuals are dragged along with it, for opposition to war, however high-minded, will eventually be seen as nothing more than treason by most of the population. Realpolitik, anxiety, balance of power, economic considerations must have dominated recent discussions on Europe and the Middle East in Brussels and Washington, just as they must have dominated conversations a hundred years ago. Nothing in all of this feels clean, worthy or humane: mercenaries; the celebration of murder; secret negotiations; men who do not know where they are being sent; widows.
So while the Last Post and the poppies, overlaid with photos of handsome pale-faced public school boys, all have their place in the myth that is martial British culture, there’s a place too for the poets who prove the myth a lie: the awkward individual voices like Zuckmayer and Rèbora who show that ‘politics by other means’ is a foul murderous business (who cares to remember how Wilfred Owen won his Military Cross?).
This MPT is also a place for the many other voices. It was a World War, a clashing of empires, and it involved peoples across the planet. In this issue the Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan discusses and translates the folksongs composed and sung by women in the Punjab who had lost their husbands, lovers and sons to war. These women were indifferent to the war fought by the firangees (white foreigners). We might usefully compare them to the foolish women who sent soldiers off here: ‘their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray | As men’s are, dead’.